Sunday, January 6, 2013
STEUBENVILLE, Ohio -- The story of a reported rape in the small Ohio Valley town of Steubenville that started last summer with the vulgar Tweets of a few teenaged athletes has gone viral around the world.
A recently released video of a teen joking about the attack has added fuel to the story that was first reported by The Plain Dealer in September. A photo of the girl being dragged has also rapidly spread over the Internet.
National media reports and a steady drumbeat of attention by bloggers and recently the hacker activist group, Anonymous, has kept the case in the spotlight, with some claiming that the community is protecting its high school football players at the expense of justice for the girl.
Two 16-year-old “Big Red” football players are charged with raping a West Virginia girl and one of the teens is charged with photographing her nude. They are set to be tried in Juvenile Court in February.
Attorneys for the two football players have said the level of attention is jeopardizing their right to a fair trial and that some of the evidence, such as the photos, have been taken out of context.
Debate about the reported attack divided the football-fueled town of 18,000 between those who supported the athletes and those who were appalled at the treatment of a young woman.
In recent weeks, Internet sleuths such as the Anonymous group, are questioning whether there was an attempted cover-up by politically-connected public officials and football boosters in the case, and whether the police and state investigators have the adequate skills and motivation to unearth digital evidence to charge everyone involved.
As a part of the crusade, they have hacked into the independently run student athletics site rollredroll.com, and the emails of the site’s operator Jim Parks and an assistant football coach.
They also have released dossiers on other officials in the town and what the hackers believe their connections are to the case.
Many of the officials and athletic backers have publicly called the conspiracy assertions absurd and say the hackers are unfairly maligning the whole town.
“The outrageous claims they made while controlling this site were totally false, completely absurd, and totally unfounded,” said a message on the athletics site, which is not affiliated with the school district. “They were clearly both libelous and slanderous, and were not even intended to reveal truth, but rather simply to get media attention and terrorize the Steubenville community.”
At Dec. 29 rally at the Jefferson County court house, hundreds of peaceful protesters gathered to support the 16-year-old victim and chanted for Steubenville Head Football Coach Reno Saccoccia to resign.
Saccoccia told The Plain Dealer in August that he was unaware of social media activities of his players or that they were drinking and partying. But he has defended the character of the football players in court, a move that disturbed some.
Another rally is scheduled for today at noon.
The Plain Dealer first wrote about the case on Sept. 2, about two weeks after the rape was reported to Steubenville police by the teen girl’s parents. At that time it quickly became one of the most viewed stories on the paper’s affiliate, cleveland.com.
Then in December, The New York Times did a similar story, which drew the attention of members of the hacker groups.
Attorney General Mike DeWine, whose office is leading the investigation and prosecuting the case, fielded questions on CNN yesterday.
He later told The Plain Dealer that his office continues to gather evidence in the case but will not try it in the media. He warned that not all the evidence being disseminated on the Internet is true.
DeWine took over the case in the fall after the local prosecutor Jane Hanlin stepped aside because of conflicts — her son plays on the football team.
The attorney general would not comment on the scope of the investigation and whether it would look at allegations that adults in positions of power with the football program or elsewhere obstructed or tried to cover-up evidence.
“We certainly see what’s up on the Internet,” DeWine said, adding the investigators decide what is worth following up on.
“Some of the allegations might be irrelevant,” he said. “People can do bad things that are not criminal. We are confined to the criminal law. When we judge what to run down and not rundown, we do it with that reference point,“ he said.
DeWine and Steubenville Police Chief Bill McCafferty have had to deflect online criticism that the case hasn’t been thoroughly investigated in terms of evidence recovered from iPhones and from the Internet.
McCafferty has said that detectives scoured the Internet and saved volumes of information but that not all of it could be used in the criminal case.
A state analyst testified at a hearing in the case that they were unable to recover evidence from Apple phones confiscated from some of the students. Only two photos attached to text messages were recovered from one of the accused football players’ phones.
“We have as good of experts as anywhere,” DeWine said. “Our BCI lab does this everyday of the week. If it can be retrieved we will have it.”
This week, the hackers released video of a former Steubenville student ranting about the victim in the case — who he refers to throughout as “the dead girl.” The girl was apparently unconscious. Testimony in Juvenile Court indicated that she and the boys were drinking at several parties that night.
After the girl’s parents reported the rape in August the 12-minute video was deleted from YouTube, though evidence of its existence was preserved by blogger and social media analyst Alexandra Goddard on her web site Prinniefied.com.
DeWine said investigators were aware of the video from the beginning and they would be the ones to decide whether to factor it into the case or not.
DeWine called the video “disgusting” and said he worries that the victim “continues to be victimized by diatribes.”
The student, who now attends Ohio State University didn’t respond to calls or emails about the video last summer and could not be reached this week.
The video recorded at the home of another student whose party the football players and the reported victim had attended that night contains dozens of distasteful references about the attack.
A few other teens in attendance seem to be upset about what is being said, but others laugh.
The video quickly went viral and national outlets such as CNN and the Huffington Post picked up on the story.
The attorney for the family of the 16-year-old West Virginia teen told national media outlets, including CNN that she is in counseling and is “doing as well as one can expect.”
Prosecutors said she remembers little of the attack and only became aware of its extent through the statements and photos online.
“She’s trying to go about her life right now, which is difficult because of all the media attention,” family attorney Robert Fitzsimmons has said.
One woman who plans to attend today’s rally said she wants to see the culture that allowed the attack to happen change. The woman, who has lived in the area her whole life and was sexually assaulted years ago, said she isn’t optimistic.
“It’s not going to happen overnight,” she said. “But I’m hoping it does happen.”
Katie Hanna, of the Ohio Alliance To End Sexual Violence, has been monitoring the case since August.
The viral video, in addition to coverage of the rape and murder of a woman in India by multiple men and the failure of Congress to re-authorize the Violence Against Women Act all show that we still live in a culture that supports rape, Hanna said.
Hanna pointed out Steubenville has no sexual assault prevention programs in the schools and there is no money to pay for it. Less than half of Ohio’s 88 counties even have rape crisis services available at all, she said.
"With dedicated resources for core services and prevention, relationships could be built over time to address the systemic culture of rape that exists in Ohio and nationally," she said.
Hanna said her agency has gotten calls on their resource line following recent media attention, with some survivors talking about what happened for the first time, as well as others reporting that they were not believed when they told someone else what happened.
"Out of respect for all survivors, the attention needs to be placed on the offenders and on the actions we can each take as a culture to prevent rape from occurring in the first place and supporting survivors when a crime has been committed," she said.